Educators in Iowa are using the Question Formulation Technique to help implement state standards in science and social studies. Additionally, they have used it at the professional level to spark meaningful conversations about teaching practices.
Iowa’s science and social studies curriculums are based on the Next Generation Science Standards and the C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards. While the Question Formulation Technique, or QFT, ties directly into aspects of those standards, state education leaders believe it contributes to broader learning in and outside the classroom, as well.
Teachers and administrators “love it because there are so many different ways that they can use it,” said Stephanie Wager, Iowa Department of Education’s social studies consultant. “It just has that feeling of goodness to it.”
At least 1,200 secondary teachers — likely more — have been exposed to the QFT through professional development, according to Wager. (As a rough estimate, this represents about 11 percent of high school teachers in the state.) Elementary school teachers are also being exposed to the technique.
In science, the QFT has become a practical way for teachers to tackle one of Next Generation’s key components: science and engineering practices.
These practices center around inquiry, and they “describe what scientists do to investigate the natural world and what engineers do to design and build systems,” according to the Next Generation website.
The first science and engineering practice — indeed, the first step in the scientific process — is “asking questions and defining problems.” (Other practices include things like “analyzing and interpreting data” and “engaging in argument from evidence.” There are eight practices in total.)
“One of the problems I heard from teachers is they” — students — “just don’t know how to ask the right questions,” said Amy Johannsen, a science instructional coach at Southeast Polk High School. “We want them to ask questions, [but] they don’t know what they should be asking about.” When Johannsen first encountered the QFT, “I was just like, yes, this is exactly what we needed. So simple, and we can do this.”
The QFT provides a teacher-guided, step-by-step process where students generate their own questions, improve those questions, and then strategize on how to use them.
On a literal level, it directly addresses the “asking questions and defining problems” component of science and engineering practices, “Although, interestingly, we’ve kind of found that we can tie it to multiple places,” said Kris Kilibarda, Iowa Department of Education’s science consultant. “Another one of our science and engineering practices is obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information, and certainly through the QFT process you do that,” she said. She also pointed to the practice of “planning and conducting investigations,” to which the QFT “lends itself beautifully.”
“It really lends itself pretty nicely” to many of the science and engineering practices, she said.
“This is exactly what we needed. So simple, and we can do this.” — Amy Johannsen
Science teachers in Iowa have also used driving question boards, where students pin, organize, and group questions. These questions, in turn, drive instruction in the classroom.
“Teachers were really loving the driving question board,” said Kilibarda, “but they were realizing that they were still kind of struggling with having students develop the questions to put on the driving question board.”
She said, “We started to morph the two and use the QFT as a way to really help students develop those questions that would go on their driving question boards.”
As students gained practice using the QFT, teachers found their questions became sharper and more oriented toward scientific inquiry. At Southeast Polk High School, for instance, teachers presented students in two science classrooms with the same natural phenomenon: ice cubes resting on different surfaces such that the cubes melted at a different rate. They asked students to generate questions around this phenomenon. One classroom had experience using the QFT; the other didn’t.
The teachers discovered that, in the classroom where students used the QFT, “the questions they were coming up with were more testable than the classroom where they weren’t [using the QFT,]” said Johannsen.
When students reflected on this learning process, they told their teacher the QFT “made me think more about what could actually be tested,” Johannsen said, paraphrasing the student. “We believe the next time they go through the process that they would already be thinking about that, and it just becomes more second nature, so now they become more critical thinkers,” she said about the students.
As with the Next Generation Science Standards, the C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards pivots around inquiry.
The framework is organized around an “inquiry arc” that “focuses on the nature of inquiry in general and the pursuit of knowledge through questions in particular,” according to the C3 website.
This inquiry arc has four dimensions: 1) developing questions and planning inquiries, 2) applying disciplinary tools and concepts, 3) evaluating sources and using evidence, and 4) communicating conclusions and taking informed action.
“All of the puzzle pieces work together in some way.” — Stephanie Wager
The framework holds that “central to a rich social studies experience is the capability for developing questions that can frame and advance an inquiry.”
Iowa’s new state social studies standards, adopted in May of 2017, are based on C3, according to Wager. “There are really changes connected to inquiry and questioning and student-centered classrooms,” she said, adding, “I think that’s driven a lot of interest in Iowa in the QFT itself.”
Mr. Kelly Knowler, the social studies instructional coach at Southeast Polk High School, noted that Iowa’s new standards have encourage social studies to “be a little more analytical, more critical thinking, and looking at information and interpreting information.”
Iowa’s social studies teachers have found the QFT provides a concrete tool to address the “developing questions and planning inquiries” dimension of C3. Moreover, educators find the QFT ties into the taking action and communicating conclusions part of the C3 Framework, according to Wager.
“All of the puzzle pieces work together in some way,” she said. “They’re hopefully not these silos, but they all need to function together.”
Outside the classroom
Teachers, administrators, and curriculum leaders have found the QFT useful in their own professional practice. Around 60 or 70 state education leaders received direct training in the QFT, and, as noted above, at least 1,200 secondary teachers, mostly in the social studies, received professional development that used the QFT “to model an example of how you could have students generate their own questions,” said Wager.
Through this exposure, educators have realized the QFT can be useful in other circumstances. At conferences where she’s presented the QFT, “administrators have been in the room, and they have said, ‘Oh, this would be great for our administrator community,’” observed Wager. “Just a light bulb goes off with them, and [they say,] ‘We could use this for our own goal improvements and process.’”
Kilibarda said, “We’re starting to see teachers thinking about how they might use this process within their professional learning communities.”
Groups of teachers have used the QFT to assess student data and have difficult follow-up conversations about teaching methods. “Sometimes one of the hardest conversations to have is the conversation that I’m looking at student work and what that might mean in terms of your teaching and their learning,” Kilibarda said. “When you can do it in a non-judgmental, just kind of asking questions process, it allows some things to bubble up, I think, in a way that isn’t threatening to folks, but they’re able to just put it out on the table and deal with it.”
“That’s the power we see with the QFT, is that it has just so many different potential uses and applications.” — Kris Kilibarda
Similarly, educators are realizing the QFT benefits students outside as well as inside the classroom.
Kilibarda summed it up in the following way:
I think it’s just one of those basic things. You know, we’ve been talking for years about the importance of getting students to ask questions. And lots of different people have brainstorming protocols. And it’s fine, but it didn’t seem to have the powerful protocol that the QFT is. And so [it’s helpful] to have something that is a process that really will work in so many different circumstances, and that ultimately the students can internalize and potentially use in other courses or within their own lives if they’re struggling with how figure something out or how to answer a problem. That’s the power we see with the QFT, is that it has just so many different potential uses and applications.
Wager made a similar comment: “It’s one of those things that are like, ‘It’s so simple but so complex.’”
“There’s a lot of excitement about having this specific process,” she said.
By Chris Orchard: firstname.lastname@example.org.